“A boring Noble Prize” (or a lesson in mediocre science journalism)

At the end of September each year, science journalists all over the world make their forecasts for the upcoming announcement of the Nobel Prizes that take place during the first week of October in Stockholm, Sweden. The week begins with the announcement of the winners of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, awarded by the Karolinska Institute. It is followed by the Physics, Chemistry and Literature Prizes. As expected, this activity is all the more significant at Swedish newspapers and TV and radio stations, and this year of 2013 was no exception. Inger Atterstam, from the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, is regarded as one of the most accredited science journalists in Sweden. Her 2013 forecast for the Physiology or Medicine Nobel Prize was vast and broad (to be on the safe side, presumably), and included scientists responsible for discoveries concerning the epidemiology of smoking, cochlea implants, treatments against malaria, rheumatoid arthritis, leukaemia and even Bill and Melinda Gates (!) (The nature of the discoveries made by the Gates couple which according to Ms. Atterstam deserved such a high honour was, however, not revealed).

Outside Nobel Forum, minutes after the announcement, Ms. Atterstam is visibly upset about the choice made by the Nobel Assembly for the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, and she makes no effort to hide her discontent in front of the cameras. The Prize went to James Rothman, Randy Schekman and Thomas Sudhof for their discoveries of the molecular mechanisms that control the specificity of trafficking, fusion and release of vesicles within and from cells. A long overdue award to one of the most influential and fundamental concepts in modern cell biology with direct relevance to a great number of human diseases including diabetes and neurological disorders. Incredibly important, but far away from any of the predictions made by Ms. Atterstam during the previous days. And it shows.

Microphone in hand, she confronts the unforgiving camera visibly distressed. Her eyes roll from left to right eluding the lens, her breath is heavy and agitated, her body swings back and forth. She does not pull her punches: “This was a  very traditional Nobel Prize, namely to three white, middle-class men coming from three of USA’s most prestigious and Nobel-awarded universities, Standford, Berkeley and Yale…” Wow! How about that for a bigoted statement? After a brief (and failed) attempt to explain some of the substance behind the discoveries, Ms. Atterstam revels in her own ignorance: “On the other hand, this is a very traditional and boring Nobel Prize because it is about very basic research that none really understands and that does not have any relevance, except in the realm of science.” Interesting words, coming from one of the leading science journalists in Sweden. Ms. Atterstam concluding remarks say it all: “The Nobel Committee has this time —once again— chosen not to give the Prize to applied research that concerns people [she chokes here] and which could thereby have drawn greater attention. We shall keep our hopes for the Higgs particle tomorrow.” Ms. Atterstam clearly considers the Higgs boson to be a discovery in applied science of immediate concern to people. 😉

Well, what else can be said? Here is one of the most prestigious science journalists of Sweden trying to explain basic research to the general public. As they say, with friends like Ms. Atterstam, who needs any enemies?

One thought on ““A boring Noble Prize” (or a lesson in mediocre science journalism)”

  1. Dry and to the point, Carlos! In sharp contrast with the statements of this commentator, who should learn about bon-ton and, read more broadly about forecasts and predictions, and their differences. A book from Nate Silver could be an accessible start.

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